By Chris Post
Death is nothing new to the cast of AMC’s The Walking Dead. The show has bid farewell to so many friends and foes over its run that we’ve lost count. But what about walkers? Actor Stephen Vining has lost count of how many times he’s died on the small screen.
“I’ve been killed 23 to 25 times on screen,” he said. “I used to know the exact number, but it’s been a year since I added them all up.”
Vining is among those actors who have found a niche regularly portraying zombies on The Walking Dead. You wouldn’t recognize him on the street, but fans of the show have seen him on screen almost 50 times over the years. Another six or so appearances didn’t make it through the editing process.
After appearing as zombies so many times, it might seem like it would be difficult to keep each performance unique. Vining said seeing himself in makeup helps him get into the character of each individual walker.
“Once I see the makeup, I take into account the placement of wounds or props and I let those guide my movement and expression,” he said. “Sometimes something in the script will call for a walker to be presented in a certain way.”
Although he only gets to spend an episode as any given walker, some of them are more memorable than others. Pinning down a favorite, however, is difficult.
“I like some of the because of the context of the scene they were in,” Vining said. “I like others because of the overall experience I had on set. I’ve given different answers when asked this question because of the difficulty I have choosing between them.”
Narrowing the list to three, Vining named the Grimsdyke tribute walker, Cherokee Rose walker and the Tree-intestine walker as standouts.
“The first walker that I really loved was the Grymsdyke tribute walker in Season 5, Episode 9,” he said. “I loved the wardrobe and that I was an old man. That walker stays with me so much because it was honestly the first day I felt like a real actor and the gravity of Tyreese’s death was heavy on my as he was my favorite character. To be a part of that was just awesome and serendipitous.”
Cherokee Rose was memorable for the makeup effects that were involved. Fans might remember the walker as for the distinctive flowering vine growing on it. The flower’s appearance was a throwback to season 2.
“The makeup was phenomenal and it was a challenging scene to film with timing,” Vining said.
The final walker on Vining’s list was the one that took out Walking Dead guest star Ethan Embry. Memorable for the way its intestines had become tangled in a stand of trees, the walker allowed Vining some quality time with the other actors.
“That scene was just so much fun to film and I got to be very physical with the actors, so it just stays with me,” he said.
Of course, getting up close and personal with main cast has its drawbacks as it as often as not leads to the demise of the walker in question. In Vining’s case, Rick and Daryl have finished him off the most often.
“It’s a tie between Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus,” he said. “Both have killed me five times each.”
Surprisingly, not every encounter means doom for a walker, however. Even heavy hitters like Rick and Daryl have been known to show some mercy.
“They both have a tendency to let my walkers shamble on down the road as well,.” Vining said. “Both have let me walk away unscathed a few times.
Getting made up as a zombie might not be ever actor’s dream job, but for Vining becoming a walker was a natural fit. After starting his acting career in 2013, his second casting call was an invitation to AMC’s infamous zombie school.
“I remember casting saying I had the perfect bone structure for a walker,” he said. “It was a very nice way of saying I was really skinny.”
Producers of The Walking Dead have made no secret of the fact they like thin actors who can carry off the look of gaunt and decaying zombies in the show.
Hero Walkers, those getting close-ups in the AMC zombie series, are known for their attention to detail and expert application of special effects make-up. That detail takes time to complete and the actors who play them can spend hours on end in a chair. While some actors bemoan the process, Vining said he doesn’t have a problem with it.
“When I first started it was a very strange experience, but what I’ve found really helps me pass the time and be still for the artists is meditation,” he said. “I started meditating the same year I started The Walking Dead and I kind of became known as the ‘Zen Zombie’ in the chair. It helps me be still and not fall asleep and it’s just a good time to brush up on that skill since I’m sitting there for a while anyway, right?”
Interestingly, Vining’s longest session in a makeup chair didn’t happen on the set of The Walking Dead.
“The longest I’ve spent in a makeup chair was approaching 7 hours,” he said. “It was on an indie short I just filmed called ‘Itch.’ It was a full body makeup and only one makeup artist. We had all day because my scenes were at night, so we took our time with it and definitely took breaks; but that was a long one.”
Vining also spent time in makeup on the set of the Marvel Cinematic Universe where he appeared in Guardians of Galaxy Vol. 2 as a Ravager. Although it was a new environment, he said familiar faces made the experience even more memorable.
“I got to work with a makeup artist named Kerrin Jackson on my first day and we are great friends. She also works on The Walking Dead and had done my makeup before, so it was a seamless transition,” Vining said. “I also got to work with makeup artist Bart Mixon. He is responsible for the original Pennywise makeup from It and did a lot of work on RoboCop. Listening to stories from those sets while getting my makeup put on really made my whole experience.”
Taking some time away from The Walking Dead also gave Vining a chance to gain some perspective and see his work on the show in a new light.
“I felt I had done most of what a walker could do,” he said. “But taking a year off, I realize now there are still things to be done and I’d relish the opportunity to be a true ‘Whisperer.’”
One thing that was never in question was fan reaction to his performances.
“Fans of The Walking Dead gave me a huge opportunity to get noticed and to gain more work in this field,” Vining said. “I’ve done several shows that don’t have this kind of fan base and I’d be nowhere without it. I love to meet fans at conventions and travel and the response I had in the UK will always be dear to me.”
Looking to the future, Vining said he’d like to continue finding work behind the mask, so to speak.
“I want to stay a creature performer for sure, but I’m open to comedy and villainous roles,” he said. “I like to play the bad guy and I hope I get as many opportunities to do it as I can!”